Fringe Box



Debate on George Abbot’s Book Reveals Publishers Feared A Fatwa

Published on: 18 Mar, 2012
Updated on: 26 Mar, 2012

Fear of a fatwa was one reason for the exclusion of certain passages from a recent adaption of George Abbot’s book ‘A Brief Description of the Whole World’, one of the publishing team admitted during a debate on whether such omissions should have been made. “One thing we were worried about was that if it had got into the wrong hands we could have been subject to a ‘fatwa’,” said Jennifer Margrave, of Goldenford publishers, who chaired the debate held in George Abbot’s Hospital on Thursday evening (15th).

Subjects of the debate - A copy of the re-printed book (left) with an original volume.

Carol Brown, a local historian, spoke in answer to the question, ‘Should a book written 400 years ago be cut when edited for today’s readers?’. She told the audience, of around thirty, that the original book did indeed contain comments that we would regard offensive today but it was written in another time and if we are to understand the past we need to see such historical documents in their entirety.

There were, she said, many parts of the best selling book of all time, The Bible, as well as extracts from the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, highly respected literature, that are politically incorrect or use words we find unacceptable today but they are not normally removed because it is appreciated that views have changed over time.

Giving a contemporary example, Carol said that recently, a remake of the Dambusters film has had to be scrapped because of disagreement over whether of the name of Guy Gibson’s dog, [‘Nigger’], also used as the code word to be sent when the Mohne dam was breached, could be used. She argued that although it is a word very few would use or find acceptable today in the 1940s it was and historical accuracy is important. It does not imply approval and Carol concluded that, “You cannot change the words without changing our understanding of history.”

The speakers: Carol Brown (left), Tony Richmond (right) and between them Jennifer Margrave, from Goldenford Publishing, who chaired the debate held in the Common Room of George Abbot's legacy to his home town, the 17th century hospital.

Anthony Richmond, Master of George Abbot’s Hospital and author of the republished version of George Abbot’s book, who was making the case that the changes were correct, responded by explaining that having read the book, he felt, “What a pity it is that so few will understand it.” The language included sentences that were long, rambling and complex. “I tried to make it accessible to the modern reader.”

The ‘censorship’ consisted of the deletion of a couple of passages which described the supposed sexual practices and criminal behaviour of Mohammed. “It was just that there were a couple of sentences that if they were written about Christ would be considered blasphemous.”

He pointed out that there were several examples where language had been changed or evolved as sensitivities have changed and gave the example of the rite of the Roman Catholic mass in which references to Jews has been altered and the story of Snow White. In the original version it was her mother that had betrayed her but this was later changed to step mother because it was felt that betrayal by her own mother was insensitive.

“I agree,” said Anthony Richmond “that we should not try and alter events and apologising for past events, by those not even alive when they took place, seems inappropriate. “I just removed two paragraphs that I thought would turn people off.”

Questions were then taken from the audience.

The first questioner said that George Abbot’s book is not a historical document it is just someone’s opinion. “If we don’t filter such language we can perpetuate anguish,” she said.

Another member of the audience, local councillor Angela Gunning, said, “There is a difference between writing a new book and including such things when republishing an old book.”

In a vote taken at the end of proceedings 15 voted in favour of the arguments presented by by Carol Brown and 5 for Anthony Richmond. There were several abstentions.

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